A Clockwork Nightmare: Nazism in Germany 1933-1945
December 18, 1998
Humanitarian Resistance Against the Third Reich
Most everyone knows the story of how Anne Frank and her family were hidden by their friends, hoping to escape the execution of the ìracially inferior.î Were those the only people who risked their own lives to save their friends or even strangers? Of course not, many people from all walks of life helped not only Jews, but Social Democrats, Communists, Poles, Jehovahís witnesses, and other ìcriminalsî destined for concentration camps. These people risked not only their own lives, but their familiesí lives as well in order to do what was morally right. Humanitarian resistance also existed within the concentration camps. The way resistance was accomplished was absolutely ingenious. All of the people involved were very clever about getting around the Nazi rules. They also had plans in case they were ever questioned. Their plans did not always work, of course, but whether they lived or died, these people were the true heroes of World War II.
Obviously, the people involved in this resistance were very secretive about how many and who escaped. Otherwise, these escapes would not have been successful. During the first years of the Nazi regime, it was fairly easy to help people flee from Germany. Most fled to Switzerland. It was the only country that was able to negotiate some independence from Germany. The Rhine River and Lake Constance formed 90% of its border with Germany. Near Schaffhausen and Stein am Rhein was a place known as the green border. One could escape to Switzerland through fields and forests, with the help of someone knowledgeable of the area. The terrain made escapes difficult to detect. Why this area? There were many reasons. According to Geyer and Boyer (1992), there was a large concentration of Catholics there. The Catholics did not really agree with much of the Nazi party agenda. Also, the Communist Party of Germany leader and his family lived there. In addition to the Catholics, many Communists and Social Democrats lived in the region. There were many factories there. They were filled with agricultural workers, not the skilled artisans that were loyal to the Nazi party. The area was very popular for outdoor recreation with an abundance of hiking, skiing, and other activities that could familiarized people with the land. Singen was the hub of the railway system and was close to Switzerland (Geyer and Boyer, 1992). In 1924, the Schaffhausen Red Help was formed as Communists were well prepared for the Nazi seizure of power. The Nazis hated the Communists. Geyer and Boyer (1992) estimated that there were over 300,000 Communist party members. At least half of those were imprisoned by the Nazis. At least 20,000 of those were eventually killed (Geyer and Boyer, 1992). By 1939, there was more support for the Nazis. It became harder to help people. The Swiss police began returning refugees because they feared German invasion. In 1942-45, they sent around 10,000 back. These were only the documented cases (Geyer and Boyer, 1992). It now became hard for resistance organizations to exist. It became an individual effort.
In other areas of Germany and its conquered countries, organizations, families and friends began hiding Jewish children. For the most part, the hiding of whole families was rare. Children were easier because if they were young enough, they did not require papers, or they could pass them off as relatives. The choice to have someone hide a child was very hard for the Jewish families, as they were a very tight family unit and most of the time they would be giving their child to a gentile stranger. Some families even resorted to suicide to escape certain death at the hands of the Nazis (Leber, 1994). Another problem with hiding was getting the proper medical attention to that person. According to Geyer and Boyer (1992), the Naamloze Vennootschap, or N.V., based themselves in the Netherlands. It began with two young men, Gerard and Jacob Musch, who refused to accept the Nazis deprivation of human liberty. The Brauns, a Jewish family, came to Amsterdam from Vienna. They converted to the Dutch Reformed Church in hopes to escape the persecution, but they were made to wear the star anyway. Their fellow church members sympathized with them. Soon the children were called to go to Germany to work. The Musch brothers were outraged and said they could possibly find a place to hide. Thus was the beginning of the N.V. They decided to focus on children. They faced two main problems with operation: finding homes for the children and establishing contact with those who needed to be hidden. The Muschís went south to Limburg, an overwhelmingly Catholic area. They made contact with a Protestant priest, Gerard Pontier. The pastor knew his congregation personally and they were very unified because of the many Catholics there. Pastor Pontier introduced the Musches to the Vermeer family who lived in Brunssum. When the razzias operations began, the Jews were driven to a central deportation point, the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a theatre. Because so many Jews were located in this theatre, almost 1500 plus their belongings, the Germans decided to send the children across the street to a child care center so they themselves could be more comfortable. The director of the center, Henriette Rodriquez-Pimentel, was determined to help these children escape the clutches of the Nazis. Because everyone in the theatre had to register with the Jewish Council upon entering, she needed help from an insider to destroy the records. The task was taken on by Walter Sueskind and Felix Halverstad. They did not have access to the registration cards, but were determined and devised may ways to steal the records. The registers disappeared from the files. Therefore, the center and the parents could not be held responsible for them because they did not exist. With the help of the Musches contact, Theo de Bruin, they were able to obtain false identity cards, ration coupons, and hiding places. De Bruin and another contact, Semmy Woortman-Glasoog, were to get the children and then the Musches were to receive them and take them into hiding. This was accomplished by stealing children while they were on outings from the center. Later, Pimentel obtained cooperation from the next door building which was a teachersí training college. From the street, the buildings looked separate, but the back gardens were connected. Because the school was not guarded, it was very helpful to the resistance. Some infants were even smuggled out in bags which was a great risk to the individual if they cried (Geyer and Boyer, 1992).
The Boogaards, a Netherlands farm family, and their contacts in Amsterdam picked up Jewish children from orphanages and friends and hid them at their farm. This was accomplished much the same way as the N.V. rescued their children. The children were not told of the impending abduction. It would just happen. They and other Netherlands resistance people saved thousands of Jewish children from an almost inescapable fate (Geyer and Boyer, 1992).
The Zegota, based in Warsaw, secured hiding places, financial assistance, and false documents to their contacts. The Zegota established a Childrenís Bureau. When the Jews were moved into the ghettos, the Zegota was almost destroyed. Irena Sendlerowa and Irena Schultz obtained documents that allowed them into the closed gates of the ghetto. Within the ghetto, there was a secret network of women that they could trust to distribute the supplies they had sneaked in. The mass expulsions of the Jews from Warsaw began in 1942. The Childrenís Bureauís next challenge was how to smuggle the children out of the ghetto. This was usually done through underground corridors. After the children were place with new families, these families received money, food, clothing, and milk coupons for their service. The Zegota saved at least 2500 children (Geyer and Boyer, 1992). Tina Strobos and her mother and grandmother were also Dutch rescuers (Land-Weber, 1984). It was very hard to escape from Holland due to the flat terrain. The Netherlands had sea on the north and west. Germany and occupied Belgium was on the south and east. Life in the Netherlands was hard when the Germans took over. The civil government that was set up there made no one safe because the highest power was the Gestapo and their main concern was control of the population. The Dutch despised the Nazis so much that the university in Amsterdam closed because 95% of the students refused to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler. Tina and her mother opened their home to many Jews, but none stayed very long. It was more of a transit place from which people went on to other places. They even hid personal effects and valuables in the cellar for those that they had help. Tina rode her bike to many of the houses where the Jews had been taken after they had left their home. She brought correspondence from families as well. Tina even had a spy in the Gestapo that would call her to let her know if the house was going to be raided. Some of the Gestapo could be bribed (Land-Weber, 1984). One was more protected in southern France with the military occupation. Even with the help of these courageous individuals, only one out of five Jews in Holland returned after the war. Eighty percent of Dutch Jews were killed (Land-Weber, 1984).
Another group called the Youth Alijah, saved and arranged for immigration to Palestine. By September 1939, they had moved over 5000 German and Austrian children there. They had relocated 15000 to yet unoccupied countries in Europe (Land-Weber, 1984). The Youth Alijah was an offshoot of the Zionist movement. Its goad was to settle Jews in Palestine and revive Hebrew as a language of daily discourse, reconstitute Israel, and establish a modern Jewish state (Land-Weber, 1984). By 1948, they had resettled over 30000 and over 9000 had left during the war (Land-Weber, 1984).
The majority of all resistance was usually women and poor families. For women, it was ìthe natural thing to do.î For the families, the lived far from the cities in isolation and did not see the day to day atrocities the Nazis were committing. Friendship was a big reason for helping, too.
The mass murder of the ìracially inferiorî did not start until 1941. They were transferred to extermination camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanak to be euthanized. According to Langbein (1994), at the outbreak of the war, the number of inmates jumped from 25,000 to 88,000 in December 1942. Then it increased to 224,000 in August 1943 (Langbein, 1994). With this dramatic increase, the SS in charge lost track of things and opened doors to resistance. They received contradictory directives that added to the resistance movement. By August 1944, the count was up to 524,000 and deaths were increased due to overcrowding (Langbein, 1994). That number was grew to 714,000 by January 1945. As the war raged on, the Nazis were beginning to experience several defeats which increased morale and resistance within the camps. It also resulted in guard changes. They took out SS members and replaced them with less brutal ethnic Germans. Within the camps, it was required that people wear the mark of why they were there. Red triangles were for political prisoners; green for criminals; yellow for Jews; black for antisocials like gypsies; and pink for homosexuals. There were many conflicts for prison rule between the Reds and Greens. For the most part, the Greens were much more barbaric than the Reds. One of the acts of resistance was putting Reds in charge of the camps. Hospital capos had influence in filling these positions. They tried to help the sick and exhausted and usually did due to lack of supervision. Concentration camp resistance also included active resistance to guards and anything done or planned to subvert the aims of camp administration (Langbein, 1994). Prisoners were to be morally broken and physically destroyed. Thus, any act that could restore moral or help save lives was in direct opposition to the masters of the camps. In addition to what was mentioned previously, resistors also tried to thwart or mitigate the tendencies of the SS to split up armies of inmates and play groups against each other, methods of systematic demoralization of prisoners, and the intention to exterminate. There were also acts of improving the general conditions within the camps, efforts to diminish exploitation of the workforce for Nazi war aims, and work to inform the outside world of the inhumanities happening in the camps (Langbein, 1994). For example, the plan to liquidate Auschwitz was abandoned due to the BBC broadcast of the news they received from the Polish government officials in exile there. The officials had received their information from Krakow where contacts had received this information from the Auschwitz resistance. In Ravensbruck, an all womenís concentration camp, inmates reminded the Nazis that the Allies already had information about the cruel experiments they had been doing. In turn, the lives of these ìguinea pigsî were saved. The Allies had received their information from resistance organizations (Langbein, 1994). Prisoners in the resistance also received extra clothing and blankets from the outside. As the Nazis began to lose the war, the exterminations decreased and there were some escapes.
The most documented resistance occurred at Buchenwald. They were so bold that they even destroyed and changed documents. Langbein stated that early period resistance groups were small and ethnically oriented. Their main goal were to inform the outside and acquire information from the outside, warn against informers, and prepare for immanent interrogations from the Gestapo. As time passed, new directives were added. They include influencing sympathizers, struggling against the SS, helping the sick and weak, assuring fair distribution of food, and opposing prisoners who exploited their positions to have a better life at the expense of other inmates (Langbein, 1994). Resistance in the camps was more like mutual aid given to improve personal protection against the horrors of the camp. These people also worked at preserving human dignity and sabotaging the work of the Germans. A lot of the resistance was done by the Communists. The Communists from all countries were united, but were usually led by Germans or Austrians of that political affiliation. These groups were especially active at Buchenwald. Escapes did not happen very often. These usually took place at the extermination camps like Auschwitz and Majdanak because the conditions were so awful that the punishment was no worse than living. But escapes meant harsher punishment for the entire camp. So they were not done very often. In order for an inmate to escape, ìhe needed two things: an opportunity to get out of the camp and someone ready to help him once he was freeî (Langbein, 1994). Even if someone had these to commodities, it was very difficult and not advisable for the sake of the rest of the camp.
It must be noted that only a few lives were saved. The resistance organizations within the camps had to chose whom would be saved. One must consider that choosing to help that one person had less of a strain on the conscious that standing by and done nothing. Some of this saving was achieved by replacing the records of the dead with those of the living. Unfortunately, the SS discovered this and was able to stop it in Auschwitz by tattooing the inmatesí numbers on his left underarm (Langbein, 1994). Overall, only a few lives were saved within the camps, but the fact that they could still resist at all was inspiring.
In conclusion, resistance existed everywhere against the Nazi regime whether it was in the camps or in the empire they had taken by force. These people were the true heroes of the war because they opposed the Nazis and endangered themselves and their families. They did this unselfishly and wanted no special treatment for their actions after the war. They did what they knew was right. They were very clever and could devise ways of dodging the rules. The Nazi Germans thoroughness was not a perfect system and could still be beaten with a little human ingenuity.
Benz, Wolfgang, and Pehle, Walter H. (Eds.). (1997). Encyclopedia of German Resistance. New York: Continuum Publishing Company.
Geyer, Michael, and Boyer, John W. (Eds.). (1992). Resistance Against the Third Reich 1933-1945. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Langbein, Hermann. (1994). Against All Hope. New York: Paragon House.
Land-Weber, Ellen. (1984). Rescuers from the Holocaust. [On-line]. Available: http.//sorrell.humboldt.edu/~recuers/.
Leber, Annedore. (1994). Conscious In Revolt. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc.